By Laird Harrison
ALAMEDA, California (Reuters) - Two injured crew members from an Australian yacht taking part in a round-the-world race were ferried safely to shore on Monday by a Coast Guard cutter that rescued them after a towering wave smashed into their sailboat.
British competitor Jane Hitchens, 50, and her crew mate, Nik Brbora, 29, a Croatian native who now lives in England, arrived in San Francisco Bay in late afternoon and were taken to a local hospital in Alameda.
Hitchens, believed to have broken some ribs, and Brbora, who apparently suffered a sprained pelvis, walked stiffly down the gangplank and were placed on stretchers. Each gave a smile before being loaded into separate waiting ambulances.
The assistant director of the round-the-globe sailing contest, Justin Taylor, said it would be up to doctors to determine whether the two injured mariners were fit to return to the race later this month for the last leg of the competition.
Two other crew members with less severe injuries, and nine fellow sailors who were unhurt will remain aboard their yacht, the Geraldton Western Australia, which is competing against nine identical sailboats in the Clipper Around the World Race.
The Geraldton was expected to dock in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, early on Tuesday morning.
"I imagine they will be quite relieved to see the Golden Gate," race spokeswoman Isabel Hokken said.
The Coast Guard cutter Bertholf picked up Hitchens, a doctor from Kent, and Brbora, a software engineer from London, off their yacht on Sunday, a day after the vessel was slammed by a huge wave during rough seas, race organizers said.
The other two injured crew members were identified as Max Wilson, 62, a farmer from Queensland, Australia, who also was suspected to have suffered broken ribs but was is in more stable condition, and Mark Burkes, 47, from Worcestershire, England, who sustained a back injury, according to a statement from the race organizers.
They had been close to finishing the sixth leg of a 40,000-mile race that began in July 31, 2011 in Southampton, England, and took the yachts to ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and China, then across the Pacific Ocean en route to Oakland, California.
The Geraldton was stricken about 400 nautical miles off the California coast by a monster wave that crashed over the boat's deck on Saturday. The impact destroyed its steering wheel and one of its communications systems, a Coast Guard statement said.
Coast Guard spokesman Barry Bena said severe weather had made it impossible for a rescue helicopter to take the two most seriously hurt crew members off the yacht directly, and they were transported to a Coast Guard cutter by small boat.
Captain Tom Crabbs said the crew had to contend with 20- to 30-foot seas during the rescue.
In a statement on the race website, the sailboat skipper Juan Coetzer said the yacht had been making good speed, "Then at our watch change, just before the sun came up, a monstrous foaming swell broke over our stern."
A long-range Coast Guard HC-130 plane dropped medical supplies to the vessel on Saturday.
The Geraldton is using backup steering and communications systems to sail to Oakland. After repairs there, the Geraldton will continue on the next leg of the race, departing for Panama on April 14 with the goal of reaching Britain again on July 22, 2012, Hokken said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)